Investigating the effects of environmental change on tropical montane bees and their pollination services

Kelvin Peh (UoS), Malcolm Soh (Singapore National Parks Board), Zestin Soh (Singapore National Parks Board), Chong Leong Puan (Universiti Putra Malaysia)

Deforestation is a major threat to biodiversity in South-East Asia where more than 14% of forest cover was lost in the last decade [1]. Combined with climate change, which is expected to rise by 6°C in Asia by the turn of the century, montane species are facing an unprecedented risk of extinction [2].

There are fewer than 50 articles published globally on the impacts of habitat degradation on tropical montane insects [3]. Given that montane forests have been rapidly depleted due to agricultural expansion, assessing the impact of deforestation and fragmentation on montane biodiversity is imperative. These forests are essential for maintaining habitat connectivity and gene flow across the peninsular and between the highlands and lowlands. However, little research has attempted to assess how the insect communities respond to the deterioration of montane forests in Peninsular Malaysia. Here, we focus on bees as they play a crucial ecological role as pollinators.

This project will combine well-established ecological research methods with molecular analysis to assess the bee diversity, distribution, genomic diversity, gene flow and pollination services across multiple montane forest sites with varying levels of disturbance and fragmentation. This project will provide the scientific basis to inform tropical montane bee conservation.



This PhD involves three elements:

1. Compare the composition and diversity of the montane bee communities along a human disturbance gradient (primary forest, secondary forest, tea plantation, rural and urban sites). Sampling will utilize honey baiting on vegetation, with netting at flowers as complementary sampling method. We will use Bayesian multi-species occupancy modelling to determine the occupancy and detection probabilities at the meta-community (i.e. at all sites), community (i.e. at each site) and for each species. We will also compare the responses of different functional types (e.g. flower height preference) to degradation; and determine the environmental variables (e.g. distance to nearest village, elevation, temperature, habitat loss, forest microhabitat characteristics) affecting bee composition and diversity and how these will change in the future.

2. Identify patterns of genetic population structure, genetic variability, population declines and barriers to gene flow in different insect functional groups. We will focus on target species to represent different habitat use and dispersal abilities. Specimens will be collected for reference collection at Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) and DNA extraction. We will screen samples genome wide for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) methods.

3. Assess the value of bee pollination services provided by the different habitat types using methods from TESSA (Toolkit for Ecosystem Services Site-based Assessment) or other computer-based modelling tools.


University of Southampton

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the School of Biological Sciences. The student will have access to world-class lab facilities, extensive academic networks and interdisciplinary opportunities.

The student will receive broad training in ecology and develop skills in relevant disciplines (taxonomy, molecular biology, landscape ecology). The student will gain important research skills in wildlife sampling techniques and data analysis (Bayesian statistical analysis, spatial data analysis, population genetics analyses). The student will receive specific training in insect sampling/handling; DNA extraction; and microsatellite genotyping.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please see for details.

Background Reading: 

[1] Hansen MC, Potapov P, Moore R, Hancher M, Turubanova SA, Tyukavina A, Thau D, Stehman SV, Goetz SJ, Loveland TR, Kommareddy A, Egorov A, Chini L, Justice CO and Townshend JRG. 2013. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342:850-853.

[2] Peh KS-H, Soh MCK, Sodhi NS, Laurance WF, Ong DF and Clements R. 2011. Up in the clouds: is sustainable use of tropical montane cloud forests possible in Malaysia? Bioscience 61:27-38.

[3] Soh MCK, Mitchell NJ, Ridley AR, Butler CW, Puan CL and Peh KS-H. 2019. Impacts of habitat degradation on tropical montane biodiversity and ecosystem services: a systematic mapping for identifying future research priorities. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 2, [83].